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Film and the Arts

January '21 Digital Week IV

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Buster Keaton Collection, Volume 4 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Two of Buster Keaton’s second-tier features—Go West (1925) and College (1927)—make up the latest volume of Cohen’s Buster Keaton Collection, but even in these scattershot comedies there’s much to enjoy, notably the uproarious sequences in College of Keaton desperately trying out different track and field events to impress a coed.
Even second-rate Keaton is worth watching, however, as these both of these films show. There are excellent new hi-def transfers; extras are Hal Roach’s 1923 short, also titled Go West, and a featurette, Buster Keaton: Screenwriter.
Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio began life as Leonore before the composer extensively tweaked it, but occasionally the first draft is staged, as it was last March by New York City’s enterprising company Opera Lafayette a week before the COVID-19 shutdown.
Nathalie Paulin makes a splendid and valiant title heroine, who dresses as a man to spring her beloved husband from prison, in Oriol Tomas’ spirited staging, and Beethoven’s heroic score is given a spirited reading by the orchestra and chorus under conductor Ryan Brown. Both hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
Snowpiercer—Complete 1st Season 
 (Warner Bros)
Korean director Bong Joon Hoo’s 2013 post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick about a high-speed train circling the globe carrying what’s left of humanity after a disastrous attempt to fix global warming (elites in front, dregs in back) ran off the rails but still spawns this new series starring Jennifer Connolly as the head of Hospitality and Daveed Diggs as leader of the opposition.
The series depends less on Bong’s willful weirdness but even with top-notch visuals and acting—Connolly’s ice queen hasn’t been used to such good effect since The Hot Spot—there’s a nagging feeling that Snowpiercer is a gigantic allegory in search of a compelling story to tell. The series’ 10 episodes look dazzling in hi-def; extras are several short featurettes.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
The Salt of Tears 
(Distrib Films US)
French director Philippe Garrel, who has consistently chronicled relationships that scream male toxicity, creates his most toxic protagonist yet: Luc (Logann Antuofermo), who meets and woos Djemila (Oulaya Amamraon) then discovers his girlfriend Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte) is pregnant then—when he moves for a new job—takes up with Betsy (Souheila Yacoub), only to yearn for the others.
Despite obviousness and a sense of deja vu, Garrel’s film takes Luc to task in a low-key way, and the acting of the principals (including André Wilms as Luc’s world-weary dad) helps ground things emotionally. 
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem 
(1091 Pictures)
When the NFL started getting hit with lawsuits from cheerleaders sick of being paid little or nothing despite working many hours for teams owned by billionaires, the suits were thought of as little more than nuisances, but as Yu Gu’s eye-opening documentary demonstrates, the fearless women behind them are shining a necessary light on the still prevalent belief in the business world that women are worth less than men.
The director concentrates on two women—Lacy, a Raiders cheerleader, and Maria, a Bills cheerleader—who pressed on with their fights despite overwhelming odds, including pushback from other (current and former) cheerleaders, pundits and fans, all of whom decided that they should be happy doing what they do for literal pennies.
DVD Releases of the Week
Six in Paris 
(Icarus Films)
This 1965 omnibus film set in various Paris neighborhoods is mainly forgettable because none of the filmmakers are able to make their shorts memorable as both narrative and sense of place.
In fact, only Claude Chabrol’s final segment, La Muette, despite its heavyhanded O. Henry irony, scores; too bad that someone like Godard whiffs (I expected less from Roach, Rohmer, Douchet and Pollet, and alas got it). Nicely restored in hi-def, the film would at least look much better on Blu-ray, so it’s unfortunate this has been released only on DVD.
Sudden Fear 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Joan Crawford appropriately chews the scenery as a famous Broadway playwright who falls in love with a middling actor (who’s played with appropriate menace by Jack Palance) in this tautly-made 1952 thriller by director David Miller.
Miller shrewdly imbues the film with a palpable sense of unsettling dread through the foggy B&W photography of Charles B. Lang, Jr. along with Elmer Bernstein’s intense musical score. The lone extra is an audio commentary.
CD Releases of the Week
Holmboe—String Quartets, Volume 1 
Nørgård/Ruders—Works for Solo Cello 
For such a small country, Denmark has had an outsized influence on classical music for more than a century, since the heyday of the great symphonist Carl Nielsen. Nielsen’s student, Vagn Holmboe (1909-96), though barely known elsewhere (I’ve never had the chance to attend a concert where his music was being played), was a formidable composer of both chamber and orchestral music. 
The Dacapo label, which released a series of CDs in the late 1990s of Holmboe’s entire string quartet output, played by the Kontra Quartet, now begins a new recording cycle of these accomplished works. As performed by the Copenhagen-based Nightingale String Quartet, the masterworks on the first CD—the early quartets Nos. 1 and 3 and the late No. 15—make a wonderful introduction to a superb and sinfully unknown composer.
Versatile American cellist Wilhelmina Smith tackles demanding solo pieces by two contemporary Danish composers on her excellent new disc. Smith performs three solo sonatas by Per Nørgård (b. 1932) as well as Bravourstudien, a set of solo variations by Poul Ruders (b. 1976), and easily meets the myriad challenges of these difficult works with a bracing combination of vigorousness and sensitivity.

January '21 Digital Week III

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
Acasa My Home 
(Zeitgeist/Kino Lorber)
Romanian journalist Radu Ciorniciuc’s feature debut is an exceptional and compelling documentary portrait of a large family whose off-the-grid home in the Bucharest Delta is destroyed when the local community decides to reclaim the area as a nature preserve.
Ciorniciuc sympathetically chronicles the difficulties the parents and their nine children encounter when social services and other government representatives enter the picture, with some of them taking to modern society better than others. This lacerating, at times brutally depressing study culminates with a haunting final sequence on the river that displays Ciorniciuc and crew’s glistening cinematography as an undeniable asset.
My Little Sister 
(Film Movement)
Nina Hoss, whose gloriously complex portrayals in German director Christian Petzold’s Jerichow, Barbara and Phoenix are already the stuff of legend, is sublime and affecting in Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s powerful drama about a playwright who abandons her work in order to take care of her twin brother, who’s dying of leukemia.
The directors refuse to succumb to sentimentality in their exploration of this involving relationship—and the fraught one with their frosty mother, gracefully played by Marthe Keller—and Hoss and Lars Eidinger as her brother give the kind of emotionally naked acting that awards are too puny for.
Some Kind of Heaven 
The Villages, Florida, is the largest retirement community in America—comprising more than 130,000 people, married, single, divorced, widowed—and Davis Oppenheim’s captivating documentary introduces some of those who have decided to make lives there. Of course, things are not all rosy and sunny for his chosen subjects despite their locale, and Oppenheim sometimes amusedly (and other times bemusedly) records what happens to them, from meeting new people to being arrested for cocaine possession, but never denigrates them and their choices.
Oppenheim mines a rich ore of the complexities of the human animal, and his bracing 82-minute film could have gone to Frederick Wiseman lengths in running time and number of subjects with no appreciable loss of impact.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Giant from the Unknown 
(Film Detective)
This clunky, amateurish, would-be thriller from director Richard E. Cunha was made in 1958 and concerns a 500-year-old Spanish conquistador who comes back to life and terrorizes small-town folk after his armor and other artifacts are discovered.
attempt at terror is as risible as anything this side of Ed Wood: for that reason, I guess, it too was resuscitated for hi-def. The simple B&W images look nice enough on Blu-ray; extras comprise two commentaries—including one with actor Gary Crutcher—and a featurette about the film’s producer.
The 100—Complete Final Season 
(Warner Archive)
This adventurous sci-fi series wraps up its seventh and last season with 16 episodes that provide closure to the expansive storylines of the dozens of characters whose fates are intertwined with one another and with the society they helped destroy on Sanctum, their sixth-season home after the obliteration of civilization on earth.
Wormholes, Disciples, the Dark Commander—all make their mark on the survivors, but it’s the visual trappings—special effects, sets, locales—that are far and away more interesting than the many protagonists. Unsurprisingly, it all looks terrific on Blu-ray.
Romeo and Juliet Beyond Words 
(Opus Arte)
The Royal Ballet’s vivid dramatization of the classic ballet by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev—whose music tells the tale of the “star-crossed lovers” as memorably as Shakespeare’s prose—is set on actual Hungarian locations that give even more immediacy to the story.
Directors Michael Nunn and William Trevitt shrewdly use Kenneth MacMillan’s original choreography, while the two leads are superb: William Bracewell’s Romeo and the astonishing Francesca Hayward’s Juliet are heartbreaking. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are on-set interviews and featurettes. 
This big-budget Russian epic about the cosmonaut who was the first to walk in space in 1965 was directed with vigor by Dmitry Kiselev, who unabashedly harnesses the outsized drama—often shamelessly embracing sentimentality and flag-waving—that such a patriotic historical event obtains.
There’s little of the nuanced satire and jaundiced insight that Philip Kaufman brought to America’s version of the space race, The Right Stuff, but since this is so well-done from the actors to the technical side, there’s little to complain about. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are two making-of featurettes.
DVD Releases of the Week
Legacies—Complete 2nd Season 
Manifest—Complete 2nd Season 
(Warner Archive)
These sci-fi/fantasy series consolidated the offbeat directions they took their characters and viewers in their sophomore seasons (both have been renewed for new seasons, by the way). The supernatural Legacies—which spun off from both The Vampire Diaries and The Originals—continues the strange adventures of Hope and other witches, werewolves and vampires who attend the Salvatore School for the Young and Gifted, hoping to harness their extraordinary abilities and impulses.
Manifest continues to somehow make hay of its one-note premise (which would have made a superior Twilight Zone episode) and the passengers from a long-lost flight are still dealing with the emotional fallout of their return on themselves and their families. Legacies extras are featurettes.

January '21 Digital Week II

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
Blizzard of Souls 
(Film Movement) 
Unlike 1917, last year’s Oscar-bait stunt set during the First World War, this Latvian drama drops us right into the center of the horrific maelstrom through the eyes of a 16-year-old volunteer who fights the Germans after his mother is murdered in cold blood by them.
Despite relying too heavily on coincidence and heightened melodramatics (our baby-faced hero seems to be in the middle of every bloody battle), director Dzintars Dreibergs shrewdly keeps the drama personal, which makes a burgeoning romance with a young nurse the protagonist meets while recuperating from a wound less sentimental than it might have been. This unsparing vision of war’s horrors (a distant cousin to Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece Come and See) is anchored by a superlative performance by Oto Brantevics as the boy who becomes a man as his homeland gains its independence.
(IFC Films)
That J. Edgar Hoover kept tabs on Martin Luther King Jr. is old news, but how the FBI went about their surveillance and targeted harassment is the eye-opening takeaway from this absorbing documentary by director Sam Pollard.
Pollard uses recently declassified files as well as interviews with experts to paint a shocking but unsurprising portrait of how the Bureau treated King, even using nefarious methods like making tapes of his trysts with other women for his wife Coretta to hear. Pollard’s film is a valuable record of how underhanded those in power can be, and it takes on an added relevance in the waning days of trump and (one hopes) trumpism.
Blu-rays of the Week 
Three Films by Luis Buñuel 
(Criterion Collection)
The great Spanish director Luis Buñuel (who died in 1983 at age 83) began his career in the silent era with the anarchic short Le chien andalou and ended it with a trio of surrealist nightmares collected in this Criterion boxed set—1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty and 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire—that are fitful, vastly uneven, and only intermittently successful. Phantom is the best of the three; its playfulness fits the serious social and political ramifications better than do the overrated Charm and clunky Object.
Criterion’s boxed set comprises top-notch hi-def transfers of all three films and many extras, including several documentaries about the director’s life and career; archival interviews with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, performers Stéphane Audran, Muni, Michel Piccoli and Fernando Rey, and other collaborators; Lady Doubles, a 2017 documentary with Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, who share the role of Conchita in Object; and excerpts from Jacques de Baroncelli’s 1929 silent film La femme et le pantin, an adaptation of the 1898 novel on which Object is also based.
Jonathan Scott's Power Trip 
The ways that utility companies put a stranglehold on local municipalities and throw their weight around to not allow solar energy to gain a foothold is explored in this enraging documentary by Jonathan Scott, star of the HGTV network series Property Brothers.
Scott shows how fossil-fuel monopolies protect their bottom lines (with the help of government) by helping phase out solar credits and giving utility customers no choice in the matter. Since nothing is being done on a federal level, Scott notes the incremental victories that are occurring locally which provide real energy choice for the public’s benefit. Hi-def video looks great.
DVD Release of the Week 
The Twilight Zone—Complete 2nd Season 
Jordan Peele’s reboot of the classic TV series has a second season that’s as up-and-down as the first: for every decent episode (“Meet in the Middle” with Jimmi Simpson and Gillian Jacobs), there are others that either go nowhere (“You Might Also Like,” a hamfisted rewrite of the all-time classic episode “To Serve Man,” wastes a fine performance by Gretchen Mol) or wear out their welcome quickly (“Try, Try” with Topher Grace and the winning Kylie Bunbury).
This new iteration certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Rod Serling’s original, which ran for five seasons and produced dozens of episodes that are superior to anything Peele and company have come up with in these 10 attempts. Extras are deleted scenes and a gag reel.

January '21 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
The Dissident 
(Briarcliff Entertainment)
Bryan Fogel’s powerful documentary chronicles the events leading to the horrific murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by persons under the direction of the Saudi crown prince himself.
For anyone who’s followed the story over the past couple of years, very little of what is presented here is new, but the accumulation of evidence and details that form an airtight case against the crown prince as well as sorrow over such an awful act committed to silence a vocal critic of the state makes this shocking and unforgettable.
In Corpore 
Sarah Portelli and Ivan Malekin’s four-part omnibus feature about the vagaries of intimacy has a healthy freedom from hypocrisy by unflinchingly dramatizing the physical intimacies of the four couples involved, but by concentrating on what happens in bed leads to a fuzziness of characterization.
It mainly comes off as earnest but amateurish—especially in the third segment, set in Berlin—but there are two finely etched portrayals: from Clara Francesca Pagone as a woman who sleeps with an old boyfriend in Melbourne at the beginning and confesses to her husband in Manhattan at the end, and—even more memorably—Naomi Said, heartbreakingly real as an unhappy wife in the second and best segment, set on Malta.
My Rembrandt 
(Strand Releasing)
In the world of high-priced art, Rembrandt is an Old Master name that brings dollar signs to the eyes of collectors, museum officials and art dealers, and Oeke Hoogendijk’s engaging and insightful documentary follows the travails of several valuable Rembrandt paintings in the hands of private collectors. There’s a portrait of an old woman over the fireplace of a Scottish duke’s estate; another picture up for auction that may or may not be authentic; and a pair of full-length portraits that the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum are contemplating bidding on together.
Hoogendijk introduces an array of colorful and even assiduously oddish characters, including Stanley S. Kaplan, an American billionaire and owner of several Rembrandts who recalls the moment when—after purchasing his first Rembrandt painting—he kisses its subject on the mouth. No explanations are required for art lovers.
The Passionate Thief 
Mario Monicelli’s raucous but ultimately touching 1960 comedy stars Anna Magnani and Totò, two of the greatest stars of Italian cinema, along with a dubbed Ben Gazzara as an unlikely trio tramping through Rome on New Year’s Eve.
Monicelli’s typically light touch treads a fine line between humor and heartbreak, even finding a moment for a brief parody of Fellini’s Trevi Fountain sequence in La Dolce Vita, and climaxing with a perfectly pitched and amusing sequence in a church. This is a remarkable rediscovery that deserves to be seen and savored.
4K Release of the Week 
Love and Monsters 
This cleverly constructed mash-up of dystopian horror and rom-com stars a likeable Dylan O’Brien as Joel, a nerd still pining for the girlfriend he last saw seven years ago—right before the “monsterpocalypse” destroyed civilization.
Much of Michael Matthews’ movie comprises our hero’s adventures through a dangerous landscape, with only an adorable dog as a companion, and if too much of the movie’s running time is taken up by his encounters with various—and, after awhile, repetitive and tired—monstrous creatures, there’s a sweetness and vulnerability that keeps it all watchable, as does Jessica Henwick, who makes a magical Aimee, Joel’s long-lost girlfriend. The eye-popping 4K transfer also accentuates the fakeness of the creatures; there’s a second disc that includes a Blu-ray transfer of the film and short featurettes.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
(BelAir Classiques)
Richard Wagner’s heroic opera is a transitional work between the grand operas of his past and philosophical dramas of the future, but it’s filled with wondrous music and gorgeous dramatic tableaux, the latter of which are only partially achieved in Árpád Schilling’s scattered 2018 Stuttgart staging.
Happily, the musical side more than compensates, with Michael König’s stentorian Lohengrin, Simone Schneider’s compassionate Elsa and Martin Gantner’s forceful Friedrich von Telramund. Cornelius Meister superbly conducts the Stuttgart State Orchestra and Chorus; hi-def video and audio are excellent.

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